How to Write Like a River

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One of the biggest misconceptions about writers is that they sit around and think up Important Literary Things and that when they’re done, they sit down to spill out all their genius on paper. The real truth? I know gaggles of writers, and we all write not because we have a grip on our own lives and know Important Things but because we don’t. We write to find out Important Things. We write to fight against forgetting. We write to excavate. We write to discover that inner story, and it comes mostly through wrestling. Sometimes maybe we’re grappling with an angel. Sometimes ourselves. Sometimes maybe even God.

I know this all sounds too mystical and too hard. How do we actually do this? Let me show you a way: through a writing exercise I call WordSeeking. This practice is commonly known as Freewriting, but I’m renaming it to something I believe is more accurate. When we WordSeek, we’re using words in pursuit of words, of course, but we’re not recording thoughts, memories, and images as much as we’re seeking. We’re actively seeking memories, truth, and understanding. Jesus (who is also known as the Word), gives this invitation to all of us:

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.

-Matthew 7:7, Luke 11:9

This is just what we’re doing: asking, seeking, knocking, using the tools given to us—words. And when we do this, we’re somehow touching the divine.

When I teach people how to write stories from their lives, this part is always the roughest: convincing them to throw out their inner editor and just write like a river into their questions with no stops, no fixes, no backing up, just flowing wherever the water wants to go. It doesn’t sound quite right, somehow, throwing out all the usual rules like that. It sounds like the start of anarchy, maybe, or like mysticism, or maybe even a little bit of socialism. You know, something threatening.

Jeanna was the most resistant to WordSeeking. A few weeks after our initial kerfuffle, I prepped the class to begin their first attempt. It went like this.

“Okay, I’m going to show you why we need WordSeeking. I’m going to start writing a story.” I’m standing in front of a whiteboard with a blue marker in my hand. I scrawl across the whiteboard,

It was a dark and stormy night.

I stand back, regarding my genius words. “Oh, that’s ridiculous. Such a cliché.” I cross it out. “But wait, it was a dark and stormy night. No . . .” I cross out stormy. I try out a few other adjectives, then reverse the order of the adjectives. Then I realize, out loud, with the marker in my hand as I’m writing, that “Wait, no, it wasn’t actually night. I think it was more like early evening.” I cross out “night.” And on I go for another thirty seconds, writing and rewriting until the whiteboard is filled with indecipherable cross-outs and arrows. I’ve managed to decide on two words: “nasty” and “evening.” And I’m not even sure about those.

“Have you been spying on me?” David asks.

“Oh my gosh. That’s my problem exactly,” Amy says, looking as though I’d slapped her.

“I just want to write one story, and I can’t ever get past the first paragraph,” Cathy complains.

You have to get in that cupboard and rattle those pans. You have to go out onto the empty plain, to the white screen. And whoever comes to meet you, you have to lean low, grab hard, and not let go. You have to be willing to question. Write beyond clichés that catch us unaware. Reach for as deep a truth as you can find. Be fearless. What are we creating here? We’re not after good writing right now. We’re after memory, we’re after understanding, we’re after reflection, the inner story.

And understand—we’re not writing to convert anyone to our point of view, whatever it is. We’re after the inner story. We’re after true stories written as deeply and beautifully as we’re able.

Don’t worry about making a mess when you start writing. In fact, this is your job right now. We’ll clean it up in later chapters, when we find out what we’ve come to say. Click To Tweet

As we WordSeek into the past, into our deepest questions, we’ll make noise. We’ll fatigue our muscles. This is what we’ve come to do. Not simply to record the events of our lives: here’s where we were born, where we grew up. Here’s what happened in school, in my marriage. Here are my jobs, my kids. All of that matters! Time and place and the concrete details of our lives matter. Our outer stories matter, but if we don’t dig into them and do some holy wrestling, we’ll miss the inner story, which is the better story.

WordSeek into as many scenes and moments as you can. If you’re a Christian, peel back those words we use far too often as a kind of shorthand: redemption, grace, community, blessing. Stepping away from our normal way of speaking and processing takes practice. We’re far more practiced using our words to proclaim, to announce, to declare our knowledge and our certainty. Now we’re using words to ask, to question, to excavate, to listen. As seekers of God, isn’t this a worthy use of our words?

Don’t worry about making a mess. In fact, this is your job right now. We’ll clean it up in later chapters, when we find out what we’ve come to say.

Ask, seek, and knock—and the door will open to a deeper story than you knew.


You can follow Leslie Leyland Fields on Facebook, on her blog,  on Twitter, or on Instagram. Her latest book + Companion Eight Week DVD Curriculum (Your Story Matters: Finding, Writing, and Living the Truth of Your Life ) are now available from NavPress.

 

 

       

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